Context, Hindsight, and Zero Defect

It seems that there has always been a desire among people to build an infallible framework that will encompass every aspect of society, industry, and professions so that there can be total uniformity and therefore greater efficiency and unfaltering safety. We have seen it in our science fiction literature: the utopian vision where there is no angst, no stress, and no conflict. It’s the idealization of the total perfection of society in the concept of communal life where all share equally in the prosperity. Unfortunately, in the real-world collectivism, practice has shown it more to be sharing misery that most experience and the elite ruling class escapes. Orwell explained it to us very well in his book Animal Farm when Clover notices that the wall on which the Seven Commandments were written had been repainted; where previously it stated “All animals are created equal,” now it read “ALL ANIMALS ARE EQUAL/BUT SOME ANIMALS ARE MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS.” What do pigs with whips and social engineering have to do with firefighting?

We live in a time when there is a well-held belief that we can somehow engineer every risk in life to zero and subsequently every risk in firefighting to zero. Maybe it comes from too much “Star Trek.” Maybe we are hardwired to have an unrealistic view of science and engineering. Maybe we are hopelessly optimistic. We see these zero-defect concepts often expressed by outsiders who, with no skin in the game and no real-world experience, look at our tragedies and (albeit with the best of intentions) opine that we did something wrong. Some occasionally infer that the failures occurred practically intentionally or from some inbred desire to embrace tragedy as a way of life or a fatalistic acceptance of failure as unavoidable. Rubbish. We admit sometimes we do not see everything in real time as clearly as we see it in hindsight. That is a consequence of the “context” where we do our work. The context of the fireground is defined by limited information, high-stakes decisions, very limited time to make those high-stakes decisions, limited resources, and conflicting goals. Add to that context the fact that the system we work in generally places one firefighter in that decision-maker role, albeit a tradeoff for perceived organizational benefits.

The uninitiated common thought is that by applying the right rules and regulations, the right training, the right staffing, and the right resources, everything will always go as planned and no one will get hurt. This thought is based on the idea that folks who have not studied decision making or how the mind works under pressure and stress believe that everyone sees the world exactly as it is uniformly and, most importantly, in hindsight where we are now omnipotent. This denies a lot of reality. Add in the exponential factor of heightened offense when the consequences are extremely dear, as in multiple fatalities, and the scene is perfect for critics and stone throwers.

Those of us with skin in the game know systems can come together in ways we cannot predict and things that never happened before are happening all the time. Seasoned practitioners live with reality, complexity, and randomness; although we may not fully understand the concepts, we live, work, and function with them every day. Understanding the randomness and volatility of our context, we plan, train, drill, and prepare as best we can for the unexpected. We also understand when forces come together and good men and women are injured under circumstances that, without the fog of the fireground and benefiting from hindsight, appear common or familiar to those who have never been involved in a real firefight.

Good men and women of our industry do not condemn or accuse. They do not foolishly explain failure with failure. They reflect and empathize. They scour every aspect of the event, trying as convincingly as possible to put themselves on that scene to see what those involved saw and how they saw it. They work diligently to understand what those involved were trying to accomplish and why. No, they do not condemn. They do not look down arrogantly with self-righteousness. They find the strength and wisdom to see how they would have made the same decisions. They respect the fact the no fire officers have ever in the history of our service intentionally sought to injure a fellow firefighter or civilian. They respect the fact that the fire officer in command believed what he was doing would work, that what he was ordering would have a successful outcome.

The Stoic philosophers believed in three disciplines. First is perception – the work necessary in thought and study combined with wisdom gained from experience to see the world or issue as it really is, devoid of passions and motives. Second is action – what are you going to do about it? What is your goal or objective? How will it look or how will you act to effect it or deal with it? Third is will – the courage and strength to accept the things you cannot change. Some things are beyond our control.

The problem with the unpredictable nature of complex systems and the problem with theory is the unpredictable nature of people; the problem with uninitiated critics is the unequal power they have over us regular uniformed troops. Control the narrative and control the belief. We with skin in the game know better. We operate forward in the real world with real problems with real people in real time, not in some make-believe world where everyone knows everything. Teddy “Rough Rider” Roosevelt was right: The critic doesn’t count; it is the man in the arena.

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